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MIT Better World

Dennis Frenchman, associate dean of architecture in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. Photo: Richard Howard

By Ken Shulman

Yet he doesn’t only use bricks and boulevards to do it. “Value doesn’t reside in buildings or real estate, alone,” says Frenchman, associate dean in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. “It resides in the story those things tell.”

The stories that attract Frenchman usually involve technology, both obsolete and cutting edge. He has helped failing factory towns find new voices, and written compelling second acts for spent rail corridors and decrepit ports. As a master’s student at MIT, Frenchman drafted a plan to transform the moribund textile city of Lowell, Massachusetts, into a national park, which was subsequently established. “Where some people saw derelict buildings and high unemployment, I saw a chance to recraft the narrative to focus on Lowell’s significance to the American Industrial Revolution,” says Frenchman. “A compelling narrative that would draw investments and create employment.”

An expert on the application of digital technology to city design, Frenchman has planned viable city centers all over the globe—from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; to Guadalajara, Mexico; to Zaragoza, Spain—seeding them with media and technology clusters that fuel local economies, attract investments, and, most of all, draw and retain a critical mass of residents and businesses. The Digital Media City he designed in Seoul, South Korea—which served as backdrop for last summer’s blockbuster film Avengers: Age of Ultron—employs more than 50,000 tech developers, gamers, coders, and telecom and television workers.

Key concepts for the Distrito Tec project include a pedestrian-friendly transit corridor (red) and a “Silicon Calle” (blue) for research labs, tech firms, startup accelerators, and other contributors to Monterrey’s innovation ecosystem. Illustration: Dennis Frenchman with Mobility in Chain and Sasaki Associates

Frenchman is actively participating in a new project, Distrito Tec—an ambitious plan to create an urban tech cluster around the flagship campus of the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. One of Mexico’s most affluent cities, Monterrey had seen its urban center depopulate and deteriorate as its territory expanded fivefold between 1980 and 2010. From 2008 to 2011 the city saw a sharp uptick in crime, and the area around the campus was no exception: two students were killed in crossfire near the campus gates. The campus had been closing itself to the community for decades.

“We realized we had made the area less secure by walling ourselves in,” says Jose Antonio Torre, Director of Citizen Centered Urbanism at Distrito Tec. “Professor Frenchman advised us to connect with our neighbors, to be a part of a larger network involving the city, the region, and the world. That was how we the university could create value in the knowledge-based economy.”

Launched in 2013 with an extensive neighborhood outreach, Distrito Tec aims to create a thriving collaborative environment between the Tecnológico de Monterrey, technology companies, and the Monterrey community—an ecosystem of research, innovation, and entrepreneurship that will create opportunity and value for all stakeholders.

The Distrito Tec project has already yielded promising results. Several tech companies have expressed interest in moving in. Current investments from developers and businesses approach $700 million—about 20% of the $3.6 billion the project aims to attract over the next 15 years. While the physical transformation of the area may require as much as two decades, Torre and Frenchman believe the project can be self-sustaining as early as 2018. The Tecnológico is already moving to reconnect with the community, inviting neighbors onto the campus for cultural and social activities. Several buildings that are currently fenced off will be accessible from the street by the end of 2016.

The Distrito Tec project embodies a new type of urbanism. Where 20th-century city planning saw industry exiled from city centers to the periphery, 21st-century planning reverses the exodus, inviting knowledge-industry companies back to urban centers. More than a change of direction, the return of digital production workers and entrepreneurs into urban centers also signals a change of practice. “Until recently, we tried to revive urban centers through consumption,” Frenchman observes. “We built mixed use developments that offered shopping and restaurants and theaters—opportunities to buy things and spend money. In the 21st century, we’re designing viable centers around production. These will become places where people make things.”